Carey Mulligan on Feeling ‘Fundamentally Changed’ by ‘Maestro’

The Oscar nominee shares how her latest role renewed her appreciation for the craft

Two decades into her career, Carey Mulligan, one of the most consistently compelling faces in modern cinema, finally feels like she’s a full-fledged artist.

“Something has fundamentally changed in me since making ‘Maestro,’ ” she says. “Before, I wasn’t able to do some of the things that artists do to really immerse [themselves in a role], to allow myself to become another person. [Doing those things] felt kind of embarrassing, but actually, it’s just the job.”

In Bradley Cooper’s Leonard Bernstein biopic (which he also stars in), Mulligan plays the composer-conductor’s wife, actor Felicia Montealegre, over the course of their 30-plus years together. Recently, she earned lead actress nods from both the Oscars and the BAFTA Awards for the role. Portraying a real person who had a complicated relationship with herself and those around her—especially her lauded husband—transformed Mulligan’s perception of herself as a performer. 

“It was by doing this without worrying what the end result would be that I really felt like I was making art for the first time, as opposed to only acting in something,” she explains.

Carey Mulligan photoshoot

Such a self-effacing description fails to do justice to the staggering collection of women she’s played. While presenting Mulligan with the International Star Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival last month, her “Suffragette” costar Meryl Streep noted that the power of the actor’s work is “located in what she withholds. I mean, the emotion in her characters is always palpable and full and felt, but it’s often tucked away.”  

Ever since she made her film debut as Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of “Pride & Prejudice,” Mulligan has impressed upon audiences just how deep she can go. Her breakout role came in Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” (2009), which earned her an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win. She followed it up with supporting parts in two 2011 stunners: Nicolas Winding Refn’s critically acclaimed action film “Drive” (for which she received a second BAFTA nod) and Steve McQueen’s racy, revelatory “Shame.”  

In the years that followed, Mulligan took on substantial lead roles in Dee Rees’ sweeping period drama “Mudbound” (2017) and Paul Dano’s directorial debut, “Wildlife” (2018). More recently, she dazzled in Emerald Fennell’s acclaimed comedic thriller “Promising Young Woman” (2020), which earned her a second Oscar nomination; and Maria Schrader’s potent “She Said” (2022), in which she played real-life New York Times journalist Megan Twohey.

“It’s such a huge transformation from Bradley Cooper to Lenny Bernstein. You couldn’t just live in the middle of that; you have to be him completely. And I felt the same with Felicia. ”

Cooper’s directorial approach to “Maestro,” which involved actors wearing full character makeup whenever they were on set, gave Mulligan a new appreciation for her craft. It removed the usual artifice of filmmaking and made the set feel more like a theater stage. The tactic fostered a strong bond between the cast and crew, making the people behind the camera feel inextricable from the performances. 

That everyone was equally involved put Mulligan at ease, allowing her to focus on all parts of the production without feeling watched. For example, while she was filming a scene in which Montealegre is diagnosed with cancer, Cooper stepped out of character and ducked behind her to give instructions to the dolly grip without interrupting her performance. 

“There’s nothing embarrassing about trying really hard to do something right,” she says. “The reason Bradley stayed in character as Lenny all day when he was shooting is because there was no other way he could possibly have directed that film and starred in it. It’s such a huge transformation from Bradley Cooper to Lenny Bernstein. You couldn’t just live in the middle of that; you have to be him completely. And I felt the same with Felicia.” 

Once Mulligan was able to fully inhabit Montealegre’s dialect and personality, she, too, remained in character. She dove in without restraint, “not afraid of looking like an idiot.”

Carey Muligan photoshoot

“I wasn’t thinking about what my face was doing. The biggest gift you can get from a director is to lose any sense of wondering what you look like when you do things because you have such trust in them,” she says. “It just gives you freedom to experience stuff as opposed to thinking, I need to telegraph this particular emotion or this particular feeling.”

Luckily, Mulligan had time to build up her confidence; Cooper asked her to play Montealegre in 2018, and the project didn’t begin principal photography until summer 2022. She was given unfettered access to Bernstein and Montealegre’s children, who allowed her to study family photos and home movies throughout the process. 

One essential piece of archival material was a series of audiotapes that art critic John Jonas Gruen recorded in the 1960s to capture the couple’s everyday life. “Those were invaluable for understanding them as people—but also for their dialect, because I had 45 minutes of Felicia speaking, alongside lots of other recordings of her,” the actor explains. “But the thing I returned to over and over again were these tapes.” 

“‘What’s the worst thing that could happen if you actually just went all in for it and were an artist?’ That became the question of the whole job for me: What would happen if I actually tried?”

Mulligan worked with dialect coach Tim Monich to nail Montealegre’s distinctive accent, which was shaped by her multilingual upbringing in Costa Rica and Chile. (Her father was American and her mother was Costa Rican.) The actor imitated what she heard in Gruen’s recordings until the character’s voice felt natural. She was able to slip into Montealegre’s speech patterns while in conversation with Cooper, who himself was immersed in capturing Bernstein’s delivery. 

Mulligan describes the woman she portrays as “incredibly poised,” presenting a polished yet unassuming image to the world. There was a certain elegance, she says, to Montealegre’s fashion sense and minimalist makeup. To capture her mannerisms, the actor paid close attention to the way her character moved when she was smoking. Mulligan, who isn’t a smoker herself, practiced with a fake cigarette while working with Monich. 

“I started sort of drawing puffs on the cigarette early on, because she could smoke and fight, she could smoke and cuddle in bed,” Mulligan says. “Smoking was just another part of her; it was another limb that she had. So I needed to become habitual with it.” 

Carey Mulligan in Maestro

To deepen her understanding of her character beyond the physical, the actor traveled to Santiago, Chile, where Montealegre spent the majority of her formative years. (She later moved to New York.)

Filmmaker and author Jamie Bernstein, the pair’s eldest daughter, introduced Mulligan to Montealegre’s nephew, who hosted her in Santiago. The actor also met with Montealegre’s brother-in-law to discuss the time he spent with the couple in Ansedonia, Italy, in the summer of ’67 when Gruen was recording them.

“I wanted to be [in Santiago] for a while. I even went to her school and saw where she spent most of her education. I saw the cupboards that they used to lock naughty children in when they were bad,” Mulligan says with a laugh. “It was quite a strict school.” 

The actor’s stay was unexpectedly extended when she tested positive for COVID-19 and wasn’t able to fly home to New York. While away from her children and trapped in a hotel room, Mulligan asked Netflix to send her an easel, canvas, and paint. 

“I spent 10 days trying to recreate Felicia’s paintings, since she was an incredible painter,” the actor says. “I had started taking lessons about three months before that. I hadn’t painted since I was in kindergarten, so I just listened to podcasts and tried to copy her paintings.” 

However, of all the endeavors Mulligan undertook to prepare for “Maestro,” it was a dream workshop with Cooper and acting coach Kim Gillingham that she found the most invaluable. 

Over the five consecutive days the three spent together, Gillingham challenged Mulligan’s perception of her own work versus that of her husband, Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of British folk band Mumford & Sons. The actor recalls Gillingham asking her, “ ‘You think of Marcus as an artist, but you don’t think of yourself as an artist; what would happen if you actually tried [to be one] for “Maestro”? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you actually just went all in for it and were an artist?’ That became the question of the whole job for me: What would happen if I actually tried?” 


Each morning upon waking, Mulligan and Cooper recorded their dreams and shared them with each other. The workshop culminated in a sort of ritual in which the two performed original pieces for each other. The unconventional exploration was unlike anything Mulligan had engaged with before. 

“It was the kind of stuff that I never thought I would be able to do or would allow myself to do, because it felt so crazy,” she explains. “But after that week, we figured there was nothing to be nervous about. We just felt so bonded, because it’s incredibly emotional and vulnerable…sharing so much of yourself with someone else.” 

This experience was crucial when it came time to film scenes in which Montealegre and Bernstein sit back-to-back in the garden of their Fairfield, Connecticut, home, highlighting the way the two leaned on one another both literally and physically. Those moments of playful intimacy, which bookend “Maestro,” came to life when Mulligan and Cooper visited the property and explored it in character.

She recalls Steven Spielberg, who co-produced the film, telling Cooper about his belief that, while Bernstein’s success was his life’s work, Montealegre’s own art project was Bernstein himself. For her part, Mulligan thinks that Montealegre saw herself as her husband’s collaborator rather than a martyr who sacrificed her life for him.

“She was always very clear that it’s not a story of a great man overshadowing his wife and forcing her into the corner, but that she made that choice for herself,” the actor says. “ ‘I’m going to put myself in your corner to support you in your artistic endeavors, and that will be my contribution to the world.’ And I found that totally fascinating.”

Having worked with many performers-turned-directors over the years, from Dano to Fennell to Cooper, Mulligan believes that having previous experience in front of the camera can help filmmakers intuitively recognize what their actors need. 

Carey Mulligan cover“You can get stuck in your own head,” she says. “I often come up against a scene that I have maybe overthought, and I find myself tanking it. I remember doing that with Emerald in ‘Promising Young Woman,’ and she identified it straightaway and got me out of it.” 

She appreciates that directors with acting backgrounds—Cooper included—tend to create environments where their cast feels like they can’t fail no matter what they do. “You walk onto a set where there are no wrong choices, and everything’s up for grabs,” Mulligan says. “That just means that you are not second-guessing yourself, which is such a gift.” 

Despite her admiration for filmmakers, the actor has no intention of stepping into the role herself. “Maybe I’ll change my mind in five, 10 years; but for now, I just can’t picture it,” she says. “You have to absolutely love something the way Bradley loved ‘Maestro’ to be able to give over so much of your life to it. And that just doesn’t live in me, I don’t think.” 

Taking stock of her past 20 years of performing, Mulligan says that her curiosity and desire to gain new knowledge about the craft hasn’t changed. 

“I do feel like a different actor now than when I started; but I feel like I’ll be a different actor hopefully in, like, two years, as well, and then a different actor again a couple of years after that. I hope to just keep learning from people.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2 issue of Backstage Magazine.

Photographed by Josh Olins. “Maestro” Credit: Jason McDonald/Netflix

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